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‘Holy Beasts’ Review: Deeply Felt Homage Never Fully Comes Into Focus

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Holy Beasts Oscar

“Holy Beasts” doesn’t work on every level, but it hits the bullseye where it matters most: as a cinematic reclamation project in honor of the late Dominican director Jean-Louis Jorge. Murdered in 2000 at age 53, Jorge only completed three feature films, but his predilection for kitsch and blurring the line between dreams and reality could have eventually made him the homegrown answer to Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

In “Holy Beasts,” a commanding Geraldine Chaplin plays Jorge’s fictional friend, Vera, who has arrived in Santo Domingo to helm the late director’s never-filmed screenplay. To its detriment, the resulting tribute-within-a-tribute often plays like a private, alienating conversation between the filmmakers and anyone who knows more about Jorge’s work than you do. But this languid yet engrossing homage is alive with tasty characters and tantalizing, if underdeveloped, ideas and its polished production values bode well for future crossover arthouse success for the Dominican film industry.

Co-directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, “Holy Beasts” is the first collaboration between the duo and Chaplin since her touching and vulnerable performance in the drama “Sand Dollars” (the Dominican Republic’s 2015 Oscar submission). Here we meet the prickly and arrogant Vera at the local airport, tightly clutching Jorge’s unproduced script for the vampire-saga “Water Follies” as if trying to channel the director himself. Appropriately vampire-chic with her jet-black hair, black-rimmed eyes and black leather jacket, she exudes an age-defying energy that makes one character advise another, “Don’t mess with Vera.” Upon arrival, she’s shuttled to her luxe accommodations by the film’s fast-talking producer, Victor, played by the terrific Jaime Piña, an actual friend of Jorge’s. As the pair reminisce about the Quaalude- and Valium-enlivened parties they enjoyed during the ’70s, the mingling of imagined characters and Jorge’s real confidantes emerges as the most intriguing aspect of Guzman and Cárdenas’ screenplay.

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As much as money, insurance and weather can plague any production, the septuagenarian Vera is also fighting against time which adds a layer of melancholy. Vera strongly intimates that “Water Follies” will be her final film. The scene where she and Victor struggle to name one member of their ’70s social circle who hasn’t died is handled gently but nevertheless increases the pressure to create an homage that Jorge himself would approve of. To that end, she convinces the reluctant Henry (German-born wild card Udo Kier, effectively toning down his Teutonic menace for most of the film) to serve as choreographer.

Upon learning that her preferred cinematographer has passed away, Vera is forced to accept Martin, played by the late Luis Ospina, another real-life friend of Jorge’s. The DP carries with him faded copies of Jorge’s work including his first feature, 1973’s “Serpents of the Pirates’ Moon,” his campy UCLA thesis film that would mark the professional starting point for his distinctive style. We’re also treated to glimpses of Jorge’s second feature, “Melodrama”, which played Critics’ Week at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and is a fictional take on the relationship between silent film icon Rudolph Valentino and actress Pola Negri.

Such remembrances teasingly suggest that Jorge’s spirit hovers over both the film Vera is making and the film we’re watching. But if Vera believes the dearly departed director has somehow blessed her film, she’ll soon wonder if he’s cursed it instead. When Vera strongly disapproves of the set designs that Victor commissioned without her input (“Kitsch is in!” he argues), she wonders with head bowed, “What would Jean-Louis think of this?” Soon enough, the shoot goes downhill as performers turn up dead with bite marks on their necks and a climactic scene shot during a tropical storm ends in disaster.

Considering the story’s intimate scale, Cárdenas, doubling as DP, delivers an impressive amount of eye candy by shooting a good portion of the film at the gorgeous Casa de Campo Resort. His clean, unfussy lensing and the palpable tropical-gothic atmosphere are mixed with beautiful aerial shots that expand the film’s visual scope. Leandro de Loredo’s score, which includes a theremin interpretation of Debussy’s Clare du Lune, is used sparsely but reenforces the melancholy and the mystery.

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While “Holy Beasts” swirls with thematic possibility and Chaplin, speaking fluent English, French and Spanish, is a transfixing presence, Guzmán and Cárdenas struggle to make all the pieces fit together. Taking inspiration from Jorge’s unfinished works introduces elements that even Jorge completists might be unfamiliar with leaving the uninitiated completely out in the cold. Whether Vera’s long-lost grandson (Jackie Ludueña), who tells stories of the Caribbean’s indigenous Taíno people, is based on a project or a passion of Jorge’s remains stubbornly unknown and the subplot fails to engage on its own.

The concept of vampirism is the most intriguing through line here, as the outgoing generation of artists represented by Vera and Henry feed on the energy of a dismissive and disrespectful younger generation in an attempt to gain immortality. But the best way for any artist to achieve immortality is through their art. Toward the end of “Holy Beasts,” Vera says her version of “Water Follies” is not the one Jorge would have made but he should accept it as her gift to him. One can say the same for “Holy Beasts.” Guzmán and Cárdenas’ film often speaks in a code too indecipherable for the Jorge-unenlightened to understand but it’s a heartfelt gift to the late director and a small step toward a well-deserved reconsideration of his place in Dominican film history.

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Berlin Fest Chief Carlo Chatrian on Gender Balance, Sigourney Weaver, Other Stars’ Travel Plans and COVID Testing

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carlo chatrian berlin film festival artistic director

Berlin Film Festival artistic director Carlo Chatrian on Wednesday unveiled the full lineup for the fest’s 72nd edition which he is hellbent on holding as an in-person event despite the global spread of the omicron variant, even after other top fests such as Sundance and Rotterdam have thrown in the towel and gone online.

Chatrian spoke to Variety about the selection and what he expects his “exercise in resistance,” as he has called it, to be like on the ground in Berlin.

One thing that I think is clear is that the global film community is supporting your determination.

Yes. Despite everything that is happening, the willingness and desire to be part of the festival on the part of production companies, sellers, actors and directors is very strong. I was even moved a couple of weeks ago when they told me that Paolo Taviani, who is 91, really wants to come at any cost. I think filmmakers are pining to be reconnected [with audiences] and the Berlinale even more than other festivals gives that sense, because you are at the center of a city. Now let’s hope that we will now be able to make all this concrete.

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You’ve pointed out that more than half of the films selected take place in the present day, but only two deal with the current pandemic. Which ones?

What I meant is that there are two films that are set nowadays and the characters in them deal with the pandemic, but they are not about people who get ill. One is the film by Claire Denis — “Both Sides of the Blade,” starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon — and the other one is Hong Sangsoo’s “The Novelist’s Film.” In both films you have people not only wearing masks, but also going though life during lockdown.

You also said family is a key focal point in many of the movies this year, as are human and emotional bonds. What are some of the films that are emblematic of this?

There is one film that I think can be taken as emblematic which is Ursula Meier’s “The Line.” Starting from the title. In the film one of the characters draws a line around a house. It’s a line that one of the characters cannot trespass because of something that happened. But the film is about being close to the line, being connected. The line is something that should divide, but at the same time it becomes a point of connection. It’s a film about how on the one hand we want to be connected, on the other hand we are afraid of being too close. 

But I’ve found this in several other films. Hong Sangsoo’s “The Novelist’s Film” is all about chance encounters. Some are real, others are just formalities. Another good example for me is Carla Simon’s “Alcarràs,” a film not set during the pandemic about how a family from a different generation in a rural area in Catalonia deal with a difficult moment in time when the fields they work in are set to become an area for solar panels.

There are lot of other films dealing with family issues. Another is “A Piece of Sky” by Michael Koch which is also about a family. “Before, Now & Then” by Indonesian director Kamila Andini is another film  — from a female point of view — about a family and dealing with the future and the past.

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You have twelve returning filmmakers, eight of which in competition. And five who have already won at least one Berlin Bear. What is the significance of this?

I highlighted that aspect because on the one hand this edition is very connected to the tradition of the Berlinale, which I’m very happy about –– 12 out of 18 means almost two thirds of the selection is made up of filmmakers who have already been to the Berlinale, who know the Berlinale. At the same time I wanted to highlight that we want to discover new voices. There are six, and not all of them young filmmakers, who are coming to the festival for the first time. So there is also a breath of fresh air that includes two first-time filmmakers. It’s a good balance.

Besides Paolo Taviani who are the others who have won a Bear?

Ursula Meier, who won a Silver Bear, Andreas Dresen, Hong Sangsoo, Denis Côté, and François Ozon.

Seven out of eighteen films in the competition are directed by women. More in general, where does this year’s lineup stand in terms of gender balance?

I can’t give you exact data, but I think we have a better gender balance than usual. [We have] more women than in the past few years. We are not 50/50 but we are working to reach that level. As I’ve already said, for me it’s important to point out that all the seven films by female filmmakers are in the selection because they are good. As good as the others, and maybe even more. I am happy that out of eighteen we found seven. I hope that in the future we will be able to find more.

You’ve said film teams coming to Berlin are going to be smaller. Who are some of stars who might be coming? Will Nick Cave be coming to promote his latest collaboration with Andrew Dominik “This Much I Know To Be True” screening in the Berlinale Special program?

I think it’s a bit too early to answer that question. Some films were invited just a few days ago. What I can tell you is that right now we expect all the films in competition to come with talent. Whether this will be the reality, it’s too early to say.

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My feeling is that all the films in competition will come with guests, whether that will be the case or not is a bit too early to say. Regarding Nick Cave, we are in contact with him. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not to be ruled out.

“Call Jane,” the directorial debut of “Carol” screenwriter Phillis Nagy, which among other talents stars Sigourney Weaver, will premiere at the online-only Sundance. Berlin could give them an opportunity to have a non-virtual premiere. Will they be coming?

The production and the sales company are totally aware of that. But of course it’s easier for film teams traveling from Europe to commit three weeks prior. It’s tougher when it comes to the U.S., given the numbers and cases in the U.S. We expect Phillis and the main cast to attend, but I cannot confirm.

How about U.S. crime drama “The Outfit” directed by Graham Moore and starring Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien?

Graham Moore is expected to attend. I don’t think Mark Rylance will be coming due to a work commitment. But we are expecting the other cast members. But again it’s the same as with “Call Jane.” Universal is willing to bring the director and some of the cast to Berlin to take advantage of the physical premiere opportunity with a red carpet, press conference, interviews. But not sure yet.

What is the feeling going to be like on the ground for people attending the festival, compared with Cannes and Venice? One of the elements of those festivals was having on-site testing. Will that also be the case in Berlin?

The biggest difference between us and Cannes and Venice is that we take place in winter. So we cannot expect people to hang out and meet outdoors. The other big difference is that the festival takes place in a big city which is the country’s capital. The rules are actually changing in Berlin as we speak. Yesterday in order to access a movie theater you had to have been tested [on a daily basis]. But right now you can access a movie theatre, if you are fully vaccinated, without having been tested. We need some time to really get a sense of the rules that will be in place at the beginning of February.

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If you ask about my sense, my feeling is that we will have a festival with screenings in place, with most delegations coming, albeit small ones, but with the filmmakers and lead talents. And I hope — and this is the big question here in Germany — that the audience will attend. But I am confident that they will overcome the fear that is of course normal because I feel that, as always, there is a lot of expectation for the Berlinale.

As for testing, the city of Berlin is spotted with testing stations. Unlike France and Italy, it’s already a habit for a Berliner to get tested once or twice a week.

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Fremantle Develops New Seasons of ‘La Jauría,’ ‘Señorita 89,’ Fires Up Latin American Format Biz (EXCLUSIVE)

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Family Feud Chile

Underscoring the robustness of a fast evolving Latin American TV market, U.K. production-distribution giant Fremantle and the Larraín brothers’ Fabula have in development a third season of gender abuse thriller “La Jauría” and second season of “Señorita 89.”

The moves comes as Fremantle is firing up both its premium scripted series and entertainment format business in Latin America, which is fast emerging as a key growth market for platforms and heavyweight independent production-distribution companies such as Fremantle.

Total Fremantle revenues from Latin America increased by 25% from 2019 to 2021 with production revenues in the region rising by nearly a third in the same period, said Jens Richter, Fremantle CEO, international.

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Both series come from Lucía Puenzo, fast consolidating as one of the foremost showrunners in high-end Latin America drama. “La Jauría” season two was co-produced by Amazon which took rights to Latin America and Spain. It was sold to HBO Max for the U.S.

An immersive thriller exposing the unseen and unseemly reality behind the glamor of a 1989 Miss Mexico beauty pageant, “Señorita 89” is produced by Fabula, L.A.-based Spanish-language streaming platform Pantaya, global streamer Starzplay and Fremantle, in a fertile production partnership.

The four partners have re-teamed on Pablo Fendrik’s anticipated sci-fi miniseries “The Shelter” (“El Refugio”). Fremantle Mexico and Sasha Robles are also partnering Pantaya and Starzplay on upcoming crime thriller “Toda la sangre.”

Fremantle has several more Latin American scripted series currently in development with co-production partners. On most it would take global distribution rights, Richter told Variety.

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In formats, Fremantle has recently  produced “Family Feud” with Chile’s Canal 13 and Brazil’s Globo, where it is currently airing, having bowed the format recently on Paraguay’s Canal 13.

“Got Talent” is launching later this year in the Dominican Rebublic, produced by East Coast Productions for Color Vision, and on Peru’s Latina TV.

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Got Talent Peru
Courtesy of Freemantle

Brazil’s TV Rede has re-upped on “Password.” “X-Factor” is set to launch soon on RCN Colombia.

Multiple further Fremantle licensing deals in Latin America, both renewals and launches, will be announced soon on “Got Talent,” “My Name Is” and “The Price is Right.”

Powerful market forces are at work.

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Fremantle originally struck a first-look deal with Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín’s Fabula, which kicked off with 2019’s “La Jauría,” with the goal of produce out of Latin America premium drama that can travel into the world, as was the case with “La Jauría.”

That goal remains, said Richter. Since 2019, however, two new trends have emerged. “A lot more platforms came into the market, into Latin America. So there are a lot more people for us, a lot more partners for us to play with and – and it’s something we see in other territories as well – there’s a lot more curiosity and openness in terms of stories to tell.”

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Senorita 89
Courtesy of Pantaya

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Supercharged by escalating internet penetration, facilitated by the expansion of digital payment solutions, Latin American has become the second fastest-growing streaming market in the world, added Sheila Hall Aguirre, Fremantle EVP, content distribution & format sales, Latin America and Hispanic U.S.

“Latin America is looking for edgy themes: Crime, edgy female empowerment, and biopics,” she said.

Producing ever more for their own global platforms, Hollywood’s studios have pulled back from third party sales around the world. Free-to-air networks are positioning ever more as purveyors of “live” entertainment.

“The entertainment format business is mainly with more traditional local free to air channels. The pandemic proved really tough for broadcasters, hitting advertising hard. But now it’s rebound time,” said Richter.

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Fremantle has some of the biggest tried-and-tested formats in the world.

During the pandemic, Fremantle was also able to advise clients on how productions were still getting made in other parts of the world. “Consultancy was key,” she said.

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